Friday, November 21, 2008

The punditry on Obama's appointments

As a recent glutton of political news, I've been reading some of the analyses of Obama's possible appointments to the Cabinet and other administration posts. Lots of ink is being shed over Emanuel, Clinton, Daschle, Holder, Gates, Hagel, Napolitano, and most recently, John Brennan as possible CIA chief. (Sullivan is livid about that last one.)

Here are my thoughts. First of all, do you notice the word "possible" a couple of times in that last paragraph? Most of these people haven't even been officially offered positions yet. So I'm not getting too worked up.

Second, whoever is eventually appointed to these positions will have some degree of autonomy in carrying out their executive (and sometimes legislative) functions. So it is absolutely fair to analyze their past behavior and the likely actions they would take in the upcoming administration. So, for example, it's reasonable to be concerned about whether a SecDef Gates would be inclined to start withdrawing troops from Iraq, since he has largely overseen Bush's surge strategy.

Third, it's also fair to speculate about what these possible appointments tell us about Obama's own plans for the next four years. The appointees' positions probably reflect a little bit on Obama's positions. But I want to emphasize, "a little bit." That's my main point here. Ultimately, Obama is the boss, and the buck stops there. So he will (and should) be appointing people who can help him accomplish his goals. Sometimes, those people might disagree with him on particular policies, but they are fundamentally contracted to implement Obama's policies.

So that's why my reaction to a possible Brennan appointment to the CIA is mixed. If Brennan is as ambivalent about torture and illegal detention as Sullivan claims, then we should absolutely be concerned. Indeed, if Brennan was legally complicit in Bush-Cheney-Tenet war crimes at the CIA, he should be disqualified, period. But if Brennan does eventually get selected, I wouldn't interpret that as a clear and convincing sign that Obama has backtracked from his commitment to end human rights abuses. Obama is the boss, and Brennan would have to obey his directives. If the directives change, or Brennan goes rogue, then let's talk.

Am I being too credulous of Obama here? Do I have "Yes We Can" blinders on? Perhaps.

Happy Thanksgiving, from Gov. Palin

Just when you thought that wearing a blue suit in front of a blue backdrop was the ultimate press conference faux-pas, here comes Governor Palin to the rescue!

(Warning: Cover the kids' eyes.)

Obviously, this doesn't make Palin "cruel to turkeys" or anything silly like that. Many of us eat dead turkeys for Thanksgiving, and I know I'll eat more than my share next week. But doesn't it say something about her judgment and common sense?

Or maybe I'm not giving her enough credit. Maybe she did this intentionally to convey a subliminal message to all of us... The mainstream media are a bunch of turkeys? The presidential campaign was a bit like slaughtering turkeys? (Wait, who would be the turkey in that analogy? OK, forget that one.)

Man, it sure was funny though.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The cultural left and piracy

I've figured out who's responsible for all of this new piracy off the coast of Somalia: Disney! Those cultural leftists in America have romanticized the profession and made it seem cool.

You know, kinda like what D'Souza argues about Islamic terrorism.

Lost in translation

I'm trying to figure out why al Qaeda provided English subtitles on their latest rant by al-Zawahiri against Obama and the Crusaders. (Hey, that sounds like a cool band name.)

Does al Qaeda believe that we don't have any Arabic translators here? Or maybe they're taking classes in strategic political communication, and really want to make sure that "house negro" isn't mis-translated as "house slave"? Or maybe they're just trying to be culturally sensitive by making it easy on us?

I don't get it. Do they seriously think they can win American hearts and minds by communicating in English? Their target audience is clearly not English-speaking folks.

Christianism XII: It's not our fault the GOP lost

Self-described member of the religious right, Joe Carter, isn't so happy about recent claims that evangelicals contributed to the GOP election defeat by alienating moderate voters. His rationale? After all these years of patting their own backs about how much influence they had in government, now they really didn't have any influence at all:
"Evangelicals constitute the largest single voting bloc in America, yet what do we have to show for it? Can Parker (or anyone else) name the significant achievements of evangelicals over the past few years? I can’t think of anything."
Really? Here's a short list off the top of my head in under 90 seconds. I'm sure others can add dozens of other examples.
  • George W. Bush, 2000
  • George W. Bush, 2004
  • Samuel Alito and John Roberts
  • Successful anti-gay marriage resolutions in 30+ states
  • Successful limitations on abortion at the state level
  • Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003
  • The invasion of Iraq
  • PEPFAR and the MCA (on the good side, for a change)
  • etc...

Were evangelicals the only constituency that made these things happen? Of course not. Were they a key constituency? Yes.

But now that they're in the minority, I suppose it's time to trot out the old victim mentality again.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Christianism XI: It's about the political power, stupid

Former pastor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is upset with the likes of Pat Robertson, Bob Jones, and John Hagee for endorsing candidates that didn't share the same level of Christian commitment as Huckabee did. During the Republican primaries, they endorsed Giuliani, Romney, and McCain, respectively.

At one level, I have to give credit to these Christianist leaders for being politically savvy enough to place their bet on a stronger horse. It would have been virtous for them to endorse Huckabee, but ultimately not very effective. (Of course, McCain lost too, but at least he had a better chance.)

At another level, you realize what it really is that these Christianist leaders are after: political power. They want to rule over This Kingdom, and not just to save souls, but also to lower taxes, "win" the war against Islam(ic extremism?), stop gays from marrying, and criminalize abortion.

Now, you might say, they only want political power as a means to achieve deeper religious goals, so it's still inherently "Christian." Fair enough, but I still think the motivation is more political than religious, because the way in which they define those "religious" goals is through an almost exclusively political prism. I mean, did Jesus really preach against the evils of raising the highest marginal tax rate by 3%? Are you really disqualified from receiving the eucharist if you voted for Obama? I must have missed that day in Sunday school.

The first of many Hitler comparisons

And he hasn't even taken office yet! But that shouldn't stop the fearmongering. By the way, who knew that Hitler was a Marxist too!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Truth vs. justice, American style

There's a pretty big debate in the field of "transitional justice" about whether human rights violators should be prosecuted or given amnesty after their regime ends. We typically discuss this debate in the context of distant countries like South Africa, Afghanistan, Guatemala, etc. On the one hand, prosecutions ostensibly reinforce the rule of law; on the other hand, reconciliation is supposed to pave the road to long-term peace.

Well whad'dya know, this question is now front and center here at home. In January, the U.S. will be transferring leadership, and thus changing some of the ways in which the "war on terror" is conducted. Meanwhile, independent war-crimes experts have noted that there is plenty of evidence already out there to pursue criminal prosecutions against Bush Administration officials, at least as high up as Cheney, for human rights violations such as torture and disappearances. Some human rights advocates are demanding that we must prosecute them in order to send a message to the rest of the world that we apply the rule of law to everyone.

So, should Obama "bring the violators to justice," or should he pursue "truth and reconciliation"? As much as I'm disgusted by the crimes of the Bush Administration, I'm inclined to support the latter. Indeed, that seems to be the direction that Obama is heading as well.

Why don't I support criminal prosecutions? First, I think any prosecutions of senior leaders would be perceived as political revenge rather than impartial justice. As a result, they would be largely seen as illegitimate, and not very feasible in the first place. Second, Obama is trying to set a tone of reconciliation and bipartisanship, and prosecutions would be so controversial that they would consume his entire first term. It would likely handcuff his ability to get much done on the economy, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Third, simply establishing some kind of truth commission (via congressional hearings or a special bipartisan panel like the 9/11 Commission) would be a huge step forward in acknowledging the sins of the past and laying the groundwork for reform. A truth commission would also be controversial, but if it was organized in the right way, it could actually build public consensus about how to move forward. Fourth, a truth commission would not preclude going after prosecutions at some point in the future. Even in countries where amnesties have been given, such as Chile, they can later be revoked or overridden by a different judicial body.

So yes, we need a full and public accounting of the ways in which the Bush Administration violated the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture, our own Constitution, and various other standards of decency. But at least for the time being, human rights activists should back off from their demands for prosecution in the interests of moving forward.

Focus on your own Family

.... was my favorite home-made sign at the rally in Orlando today in favor of gay marriage. And this one:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Interfaith "dialogue"?

In my Conflict Resolution class last semester, I ran a short exercise for a session on religion and conflict. I pretended to be a fictitious theocratic leader who wanted to engage the students in a "dialogue" about how to reform my country. As we began to talk, I slowly introduced a series of completely unacceptable norms about how the dialogue should proceed -- for example, women were not allowed to speak, any reforms had to be consistent with my extremely masogynistic sacred text, etc. Needless to say, the dialogue didn't go so well.

Since AU IPCR students love dialogue (for good reason), the exercise was designed to show some of the limitations and tensions inherent in the concept of dialogue. Most people realize the "realist" limitation -- that some leaders use dialogue simply to manipulate people and increase their self-interests. But more philosophically, if you're going to have a Habermasian or Hans Kung-style dialogue, you have to assume a common normative foundation to begin with. Everyone has to agree on the basic terms, standards, and reference points, or else people will simply be talking past each other.

Now it seems that life may be imitating art. Saudi Arabia, a systematic violator of religious freedom, is leading a UN-sponsored forum on interfaith dialogue this week. The fox is leading a dialogue in the henhouse. So my question is, What kind of situation is this?

1) "Realist" Saudi Arabia is putting on a show to keep the dollars flowing in?
2) A theocracy wants to talk about faith, but because of a lack of agreement on basic norms, people will be talking past each other?
3) Through an ongoing dialogue, some basic norms can be agreed upon, moving Saudi Arabia and other nations further in the direction of reform and secular democracy?

"Reform" in Burma: A bad joke

Burma (or Myanmar) is one of the longest-standing dictatorships in the world, and one of the worst. Forced labor, ethnic cleansing, torture, and political imprisonment are regular features of the SPDC regime.

There appear to be two possible pathways to democracy in Burma. Actors like ASEAN and China argue for "constructive engagement," in which ongoing economic links and quiet diplomacy are supposed to encougage the regime to pursue political reforms. Others, including most Burmese activists, the U.S. government, and human rights NGOs, argue for isolating and pressuring Burma until the current regime falls.

Recent events, such as the imprisonment of the Saffron revolution activists, continue to point to the fruitlessness of the first approach. It increasingly appears that the SPDC's steps toward political "reform" are a sham meant to delay and distract the international community. It increasingly seems that the only way toward progress in Burma is a complete regime change. There is obviously no easy way to accomplish this, but the first step would be to get everyone on the same page -- especially ASEAN and China -- about the ultimate goal.

A side note: On a student-led trip to the Thai-Burma border last January, we met several Burmese democracy activists who had spent a decade or more in prison. Each of them personally described the utterly inhumane conditions under which they were held, which included routine torture and the denial of basic necessities in custody. And still, the democratic opposition to the SPDC somehow remains largely nonviolent.

Why is Palin still in the news?

Since the election ended, Sarah Palin has been talking to lots of reporters, defending her record and her part in the failed campaign. And the bloggers I read have kept a sharp focus on her lies, distortions, and gaps in basic knowledge of national policy.

Is this just some kind of personal vendetta against Palin? No, as Sullivan argues, the media's treatment of Palin, and the fact that she got 46% of the vote, tells us an important lesson about our society. A candidate who is largely a sham can get pretty close to power.

But I'd go a step further than that. I think it's important to keep talking about Palin, not just because of what it tells us about America, but also because she is an actual threat to run in 2012. She clearly has national ambitions and a dedicated base. With four more years of tutoring, she can probably learn to speak on the issues about as competently as George W. Bush did in 2000. And we elected him twice.

So as much as I'm happy that America repudiated the cynical politics of this campaign, I also wouldn't underestimate our ability to be fooled by it again. That's why the lies, extremism, incompetence and unseriousness of this potential presidential candidate need to be exposed.

A tale of two schools

My daughter's second-grade class put on a little musical about America on Tuesday, to celebrate Veterans Day. They recited the preamble to the Constitution, sang songs about American history, and did other patriotic stuff. My daughter's favorite line that she memorized was, "African Americans did not share the same rights as whites until the Emancipation Proclamation, signed in 1863." She loved repeating Emancipation Proclamation over and over when she was home practicing.

It was really a touching performance. Her class is quite racially diverse, so it was especially cool seeing kids of all colors singing side by side, "This is America, a land of true equality." Our president-elect wasn't mentioned by name, but a week after the election, it was clearly part of the subtext.

Then, this morning, I read the tale of another school in Idaho, where kids were chanting "Assassinate Obama" on the school bus.

Which one is the "real America"?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stimulus package envy

Since the U.S. government is mired in debt, our ability to borrow more money to finance a stimulus package is severely limited. U.S. economists are talking about spending maybe 1-3% of GDP to help cushion the blow of the recession.

Compare that with China, which just announced a stimulus package of somewhere around 15% of GDP. China will spend it on "low-income housing, rural infrastructure, water, electricity, transportation, the environment, technological innovation and rebuilding from several disasters." It has been described as China's New Deal, directed toward the rural and urban poor who have not benefitted from globalization.

Ah, it would be nice to have a huge current account surplus and lots of dollar reserves, wouldn't it?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Score one for human rights

Obama is already starting to plan the closing of the Guantanamo detention center and replace Bush's military tribunals with a form of justice more consistent with basic rights. Most likely, some of the remaining prisoners will be released, some will be tried in federal courts, and others will be tried in a new hybrid court. The last option is still controversial, but I have some faith that President Obama, a constitutional expert, will be able to balance due process and security concerns. Does anyone still have that faith in Bush? I didn't think so.

I'm not feeling a whole lot of cognitive dissonance about the election at this point.

Obama meets with Bush today

... and fulfills his first campaign promise, to meet with aggressive dictators without preconditions.

OK, I didn't make that up, but thought it was funny. It's still hard to believe that only 71 days remain before W is replaced by O in the White House.

A New Deal stimulus package

Robert Reich makes the case for a really big stimulus package, comprised of government spending on infrastructure and energy, rather than tax cuts.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rahm Emanuel

I'm not concerned about his effectiveness as Chief of Staff, I'm concerned about the message it sends.

Memo to Obama: Appoint a prominent Republican to your Cabinet or senior staff, soon! Like now, if possible.

Relishing victory

OK, so we all know Obama's win was inspirational, historic, and signals a welcome (though not wholesale) change in the direction of domestic and foreign policy. But his victory also means that the dirt about the McCain/Palin campaign is rising to the surface quickly. It's impossible not to feel a little schadenfreude about this video from Fox.

I thought some descriptions of Palin from the center/left were a bit hyperbolic during the campaign, but maybe they were more accurate than anyone knew. In a scary way, it really is reminiscent of this.

And they still won 57 million votes!

Return to normalcy

Two days after the election, and normal life has returned pretty quickly. I'm still buzzing every time I repeat those three words in my head, but everything else has returned to the regular routine. The political pundits are already critiquing Obama's transition decisions. A part of me is disappointed, because America should really have some kind of national holiday to celebrate this achievement.

But part of me welcomes the normalcy. Obama's administration will, in most ways, be a normal presidency, with all the successes and failures and support and criticism that this entails. But that's the beauty of it. Constructivists say that norms and ideas become institutionalized by progressing through stages, from seeming impossible at first, then hard-to-believe, to eventually becoming taken-for-granted. When talking about our center-left bi-racial president becomes boring, I'll take that as a sign of progress.

The ongoing battle

Peter Howard has a good post at the Duck about the battle over the post-election narrative:
"The reality is, numbers do not make a mandate. The mandate comes from the story that will become the conventional narrative as to how Obama won the campaign and the narrative of his governing agenda. The stakes in these election post-mortems are high, as it sets the priorities for the governing of the country."
Well said, Peter. And speaking of that, you won our fantasy baseball league because my best players got injured!

Really, you can see the battle over the narrative in the post-mortem analyses on all the networks. For example, I was struck on Tuesday night by how much the election was defined as a "victory for African-Americans" rather than a "victory for America" (although both are absolutely true). Now, the narrative battle is about which question will dominate: Will Obama govern from the center and restrain the "far-left" Democrats? Or, does Obama have a mandate to implement the policies he promised in his campaign? As political agenda-setting theorists would tell you, to the extent that the second question even gets asked, it will open more space for Obama to implement things like expanding health care coverage, exiting Iraq, more open diplomacy, etc.

Why Obama won

The pundits are dissecting every part of the campaign, and they're coming up with plenty of explanations. But it really comes down to two things: music and Denzel Washington.

OK, only joking. But it reminds me of a true story -- at the very first Obama rally I attended in DC in the fall of 2007, I talked to a twenty-something guy who used to volunteer for Hillary, but switched over to Obama. I asked why he switched, and he said, "Obama rallies have so much better music." Of course he was joking too, but it was actually a good symbol of the generational appeal that Obama represents.

And speaking of music, as I was listening to U2 in the car this morning, I thought, "Is any band better suited to play at the inauguration party?" January 20 will certainly be a Beautiful Day. Someone better give Mr. Paul Hewson a call.

(Hat tip: Pat)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Thank God, marriage is saved

"Love is a temple, love the higher law,
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl."
- U2, One

It looks like Prop. 8 in California, Prop. 2 in Florida, and similar state ballot initiatives passed this year.

You know, Amy and I were having some troubles and I was just about to divorce her. But thank goodness these ballot initiatives have come along to "protect" my marriage. (Or, to be more accurate, thank God, if you know what I mean.) I suppose we'll stay together now.

Seriously though, these initiatives strip gay couples of equal rights and single them out for legal discrimination. While they may protect a religious conservative's particularist definition of "marriage," they do absolutely nothing to keep people together in loving relationships, straight or (especially) gay. Is there any plausible rationalist justification for these initiatives, or are they entirely dependent on religious fundamentalism and a lack of exposure to alternative lifestyles? I just can't come up with any rational justification.

As much as Obama's victory was a huge step forward, this is a significant step backward. But I agree with Sullivan: the trends of history are working in our favor. Keep working at it, and we'll achieve equality. One step at a time, my motto for the day.

One small step

"Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
- Andy Dufresne

I'm overcome with thoughts and emotions about this historic day, November 4, 2008. I'm so glad I was able to share it with my wife, my 7-year old daughter, and my 5-year old son. We all stayed up late to watch the results, with Tyler cheering every "point" Obama won (she's still too young for the Electoral College), and Owen finally falling asleep on the couch. The world that they will inherit just took one small step forward.

"The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

I bought an American flag this morning. I have always loved my country, and I have always been proud of our amazing accomplishments and disappointed when we fail to uphold our highest ideals. But I have sometimes been reluctant to fly the American flag, because the flag is a symbol, and too often it has symbolized a jingoistic nationalism, the stifling of dissent, exclusionist values, and the belief that our country is somehow morally superior by birthright. Until today. Today, at least for me, the flag represents our highest ideals. E pluribus unum, baby. Yes we can.

I know that with every step forward, there is a backlash, and there will be plenty of resistance to a center-left Democratic government led by a bi-racial president. But at least for a moment, let's revel in the fact that the arc of history just got a bit shorter.

Obama's acceptance speech

Wow. Home run. Out of the park.

"To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I can't stop saying it to myself

President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama.
President. Barack. Obama.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sullivan's closing argument for Obama

I have been a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog for the past year or two. I often disagree with his economic and religious opinions, but he is an excellent writer with a unique voice and a moderate standpoint. He wasn't initially, but has become a strident supporter of Obama.

Here's his closing argument -- fierce, critical, rational, and inspirational.

Joe the Plumber, another senseless distraction

The "Joe the Plumber" slogan has apparently caught on with Republicans. Several of my friends and acquaintances have mentioned the motif in conversation, always accompanied by an "Obama the Socialist" reference. I'm sure it's been said elsewhere, but here are my top reasons why this is another senseless distraction emanating from the McCain campaign.

1) The individual reality. The actual Joe the Not-Really-a-Plumber, makes less than $250K per year, and would reap more tax savings from the Obama plan than the McCain plan. It's worth taking another look at this, from the Chartjunk blog:

2) The broader reality. Every single governmental tax structure, anywhere, is redistributive in some way. Even under a proposed "flat tax," the spending would be redistributive. The question is not whether wealth gets redistributed, but to whom, upward or downward? Through rational or irrational mechanisms? Bush's tax cuts (and McCain's plan) redistribute wealth upward (from the 2000 status quo, not some mythical non-redistributive state). Indeed, Obama does want to "spread the wealth around," and Republicans have some good arguments about why he shouldn't, but it doesn't involve demagogic attacks on Obama the Socialist.

3) The symbolism. "Joe the Plumber" is supposed to represent the populist economic appeal of the Republican party. Really? After the last 8 years, we're supposed to believe that they're the party of the lower and middle classes?

4) The hypocrisy. Both McCain and Palin have made statements very similar to Obama's in recent years, explaining why the U.S. needs a decent safety net, or a (somewhat) progressive tax structure. McCain is not proposing a flat tax, and never has proposed a flat tax. Are McCain and Palin therefore "socialists" as well?

Like I said, there is a reasonable argument that conservatives have against progressive taxes, even though I don't buy it. Briefly, taxes should be low overall in order to encourage growth. Tax rates should be relatively equal because of how conservatives interpret fairness and justice principles.

But again, I understand, this is a presidential campaign, not a rational debate. This is about throwing labels at someone and seeing if one will stick.

Early voting results

I'm not sure of its accuracy, but here's a project at GMU that has tabulated the early voting numbers in various states. These are clearly good numbers for Obama, which complement the polls of early voters that generally show a 60/40 split for Obama.

A couple of numbers from swing states jump out at me. In Colorado, early voting reached almost 70% of the total 2004 vote, and Democrats outnumbered Republicans even though the early vote was mostly absentee (which is traditionally Republican). In my state of Florida, 54% have voted early, and Democrats have gained 11% in turnout over Republicans from 2004. In Georgia, early voting has tripled over 2004, led by a bigAfrican-American turnout. Similar numbers in North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, and West Virginia: Higher turnout, more Democrats, and more African-Americans.

But it's still not time to celebrate. More early voting does not necessarily lead to a higher overall turnout. And some national and state polls are tightening a bit. And we still have the possibility of a Bradley effect or successful vote suppression efforts. So we'll find out, hopefully, tomorrow night.